‘Big Game’ serves up the kind of lovably stupid high concept entertainment that used to dominate Hollywood’s summertime output. Samuel L. Jackson stars as the President of the United States trapped in the mountains and hunted by terrorists with only a teen boy on hand to help him survive. The strange part is that the movie isn’t American at all. It’s actually from Finland. That news seems shocking until you remember that Finland’s most famous exported director is Renny Harlin. Then it all makes sense.
So… yeah. Sam Jackson plays U.S. President William Alan Moore in a casting coup so delightfully perfect that it’s shocking it never happened before. Moore is on an international flight in Air Force One that seems pretty standard until his top Secret Service bodyguard, Morris (Ray Stevenson), betrays everyone, causing the plane to crash and leaving POTUS stuck in the mountains in the middle of nowhere.
At the same time, a young Finnish boy named Oskari (Onni Tommila) has been sent out on a ritualistic solo hunt in those mountains to prove he’s a man. Oskari has heart, but his inability to properly shoot a bow and arrow makes his father question whether he’s up to the task. He stumbles upon the President, and the pair soon find themselves on the run from a terrorist/psychotic big game hunter who paid off Morris. While that team gets up to explosive fun in the mountains, an eccentric gang of Pentagon officials played by veteran actors like Jim Broadbent, Victor Garber, Ted Levine and Felicity Huffman panic and watch the events unfold on big screens while playing whodunit and double-crossing each other. You know, just like a movie that Joel Silver should have produced in the early 1990s.
‘Big Game’ drips with nostalgia for a certain style of big silly fun action blockbuster in the ‘Cliffhanger’ vein. Clearly, writer/director Jalmari Helander is a fan of that type of trash cinema, but he’s also a clever enough guy to understand the camp appeal of the material as well as the sincere entertainment value. If you’ve seen his monster Santa movie ‘Rare Exports‘, you’ll have an idea of what to expect from the tone of ‘Big Game’. On one hand, it’s pure genre sleaze. On the other hand, the movie has its tongue-in-cheek as well as an oddly art house sensibility.
The film might have action scenes, but its pacing isn’t exactly renegade. Helander takes his time, often interminably so. Yet that occasionally languid pacing also suits the deadpan comedy of the piece rather well. It’s one thing to see something as ridiculous as a small child finding the President hiding in a giant metallic egg in the woods, but it’s another for the suspense of that sequence to pay off with a goofy punchline. Helander delights in toying with tone throughout, keeping the audience off balance and unsure of when to giggle or to take things somewhat seriously. Perhaps the director takes things a little too seriously for a move that features a young boy and the President tumbling down the side of a mountain in a freezer, but sincerity in the face of stupidity was always part of the charm of ’80s and ’90s action movies, and Helander captures that well when his movie is at its best.
It certainly helps that the cast gets the joke and knows exactly what to do. In Onni Tommila, the filmmaker found a perfect young actor to commit fully to his delightfully dumb ideas back in ‘Rare Exports’. The boy really delivers here, feeling like a genuine pint-sized action star. Sam Jackson is excellent as always, spitting out dumb lines like they’re Shakespeare and getting to deliver most of his favorite word before the censors rudely cut him off after the “mother…”. Broadbent, Levine, Garber, Stevenson and Huffman all walk the right line between earnestness and irony as well, though none quite nail it as well as Jackson does. (To be fair, few actors can.) On a performance and script level, the movie delivers perfectly on its deliberately dumb premise. Where things fall apart are in the action scenes.
Helander obviously has ambition and a hell of a DVD collection, but as a director he’s no action master yet. The man knows how to craft pretty images, but his sense of pacing is a little off and he hasn’t quite been able to get the budgets he needs to deliver the scale of spectacle he imagines. ‘Big Game’ is definitely a must-see for anyone with a sweet tooth for nutty ’90s action flicks, but only those who also enjoy quirky foreign comedies. The movie plays to a pretty small niche of viewers, but it will charm their pants right off. It’s a safe bet that Helander will get stolen and spoiled by the Hollywood machine soon enough. Hopefully, he’ll get to refine his oddball style on at least a few more little projects like this before that happens. He’s clearly getting better on his own terms.